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Sports Betting Is Inevitable—Let's Make Sure It's Done Right

There are potential downfalls to unchecked sports betting, including the risk of entangling players, coaches and referees. Congress must act in order to protect the integrity of sports.

The fixing of the 1919 World Series. Pete Rose’s expulsion from baseball. Points-shaving at Boston College. Scandals like these rocked the world of professional and collegiate sports, doing permanent damage to the players, coaches and organizations involved. Reputations were shattered overnight as thousands of fans lost faith not only in their team, but also in the very integrity of the game. Although these events spanned different leagues and different eras, at the center of each was a common culprit: the controversial practice of sports betting.

So while some may cheer last Monday’s Supreme Court decision to lift federal controls on sports gambling, I am not one of them.

And I am not alone.

Several professional sports organizations—not to mention millions of fans across the country—share my concerns with this court ruling. Unlike those who have downplayed the risks of gambling in athletics, we recognize that unfettered sports betting is not a harmless activity but an existential threat to the games we know and love. At stake here is not just a couple hundred dollars in your office betting pool but the very reputation of sports.

That’s why the Supreme Court decision is so problematic—it overturns the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a bill I wrote nearly 25 years ago to insulate athletic organizations from the corrupting influences of sports gambling.

By striking down PASPA, the Supreme Court has effectively laid the groundwork for the legalization of sports betting across all 50 states, upending decades of established law that has long protected the integrity of athletics. As the multi-billion dollar gambling industry grows, so too does the likelihood that players will be exposed to bribes, exploitation, and other forms of corruption endemic to an environment where sports betting is poorly regulated. Containing this corruption is difficult, not least because a borderless internet makes it all but impossible to enforce state laws across state lines. The rise of fantasy leagues, off-shore websites, and online booking have made sports betting opportunities even more prevalent than ever before.

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Promoters often portray this type of gambling as a natural outlet for fan enthusiasm, a benign side hobby that has no effect on the culture or the purity of the game. Seldom discussed, however, is the potential dark side of unchecked sports betting, including the risk of embroiling referees, coaches and even the players themselves—forever tainting the image of the teams involved.  

For the sake of the athletes, for the sake of the fans and for the sake of the game, Congress must act to protect the integrity of sports and guide states as they consider whether to embrace sports betting. To be clear, it will be up to each state to decide whether to legalize sports gambling and how to regulate it. To this end, I am working on legislation that will establish clear-cut, minimum standards for sports betting—standards that protect consumers, deter illegal bookmaking, and empower states that opt against the legalization of sports gambling. The ultimate aim of my legislation is to uphold transparency, honesty and principle in the athletic arena.

When Congress passed PASPA more than two decades ago, it marked a historic bipartisan achievement. More than any bill written in the last several decades, this law dramatically curtailed illegal gambling activities, keeping at bay the social ills associated with sports betting in particular. The indisputable success of PASPA makes the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate this law all the more devastating.

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But now is not the time for Congress to waver. If anything, the Wild West world of sports gambling requires increased attention and engagement. Inaction on this issue is not an option. Through balanced legislation, I believe we can create federal standards that not only align with constitutional principles but also uphold the integrity of the sports we love. Such standards would be straightforward and noncontroversial, including measures to prevent underage gambling and assurances that players, referees and coaches will not participate in sports betting.

No wager is worth risking the reputation of American athletics; the only sure bet against the pernicious effects of sports gambling is a minimum standard of oversight. In the coming weeks, I look forward to working with my teammates on both sides of the aisle in drafting a proposal to keep our sports honest and fair.